Bass Players to Know: Chris Wood
Each week, as I scroll through the list of bass players hoping to settle on a new subject, there are a few things I tend to look for: superior technical skill, boundless imagination, and reverence for traditional and modern styles.
This time, I jumped to the end of the alphabet. There was Victor Wooten, Willie Dixon, and Chris Wood. A master of both the upright and electric bass, Chris Wood is best known for his work with The Wood Brothers and Medeski, Martin and Wood. Always inventive, inspired, and soulful, Wood is a bass player to know.
So Who Is Chris Wood?
Chris Wood spent his childhood in Colorado and was constantly exposed to music and poetry by his parents. Strongly influenced by folk and blues, pop and jazz, he decided to leave Colorado to attend the New England Conservatory in Boston. During school, he focused on ensemble playing and studied with jazz greats including Dave Holland, John McNeil, George Garzone, Bob Moses, and Geri Allen. Each teacher provided him with a different approach to music and improvisation, continually forcing him to improve and explore as a player. While living in Boston, Bob Moses introduced Chris to John Medeski at a session and the players connected immediately.
After meeting and discovering their musical connection, Medeski and Wood moved to New York, picked up jazz gigs at the Village Gate, and began experimenting with different drummers. They eventually found Billy Martin, who happened to have just the right approach to fit in with Medeski and Wood. The trio released their first album in 1992, combining elements of jazz, funk, hip-hop, and African rhythms. The group attracted forward-thinking listeners who appreciate experimental song forms and improvisatory live performances. They continue to write and record, tour, and collaborate with other musicians.
While Wood remained busy with MM&W, he fortuitously shared the stage with his brother, Oliver, who had been touring and playing with the group King Johnson. The brothers soon began writing together and signed to Blue Note in 2006, releasing their first record, “Ways Not To Lose.” A few years and records later, they moved to Zac Brown’s label and most recently released “The Muse,” a record that taps into their early influence of roots music, blues, rock, and folk. The Wood Brothers have since relocated to Nashville, TN and tour internationally in between writing and recording.
Let’s Talk Style
Whether you’re listening to the avant garde musical styling of Medeski, Martin & Wood or the honest, soulful tunes of The Wood Brothers, Chris’s bass playing is nothing short of remarkable. He’s been lucky enough to participate in projects that feature him as an artist, rather than a sideman or “behind the scenes” player… no small feat in the world of bass playing. Coupled with the fact that he composes much of the music, he’s got plenty of room to experiment, develop, and showcase his talents.
The music of Medeski, Martin & Wood, as well as their collaborations with John Scofield, combine elements of jazz, funk, and soul with inventive song form and unrestrained improvisation. They’re known for their long, free form jams that give each player the room to experiment with sound, technique, and style. Wood frequently takes the ball and runs with it by setting up a groove for the song before being joined by the other players. The themes evolve in various structures, but usually give way for solos by each of the players. At times, the other players drop out, giving him the entire floor to solo, though he’s also lucky enough to have Medeski and Martin continue the groove so that he has a musical bed to play over. Chris goes back and forth between different techniques—bowing, pizzicato finger style, ringing open strings, long slides up and down the neck, muted/dub style grooves, chords, harmonics, and noise, during the song and solos. He’s also known for implementing the “bass snare” sound, created by placing paper below the strings so that the attack has a percussive snap.
Playing with The Wood Brothers, he takes a slightly more traditional approach, as is appropriate for the songs and vibe of the band. Again, many of the tunes begin with a groove, where he sets the tone of the song and creates a foundation for the other instruments and vocals to trickle in. The beauty in his approach lies somewhere in between the simple yet creative groove patterns and the impeccable way he denotes time and feel. Add in the tone of his upright, harmonies, and thought provoking lyrics, and you’ve got yourself a truly gifted musician.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Rise Up” (Medeski, Martin & Wood: Tonic)
This live version of “Rise Up” kicks off with a short piano intro before Wood’s uber funky groove takes over, only to make you feel like you’re walking around the bustling streets of the New York City’s West Village. Breaking down into a solo piano section reminiscent of Southern gospel music, the song transitions back into high-energy jazz land. Medeski and Martin then peter out, leaving space for Wood to play a free form solo with plenty of space, intriguing dissonance, and exciting technical runs. The band then returns to the previous groove and concludes the song with a “return to church” and drum solo.
“Keep Me Around” (The Wood Brothers: The Muse)
Every now and again, we electric bass players get reminded of exactly how awesome the upright is. Songs like “Take A Walk On The Wild Side” and this tune by The Wood Brothers both begin with an organic and extraordinary funky groove that just ain’t the same on electric. Wood sets the tone of the song with resonating open strings, a high chromatic line, and the ascending slide-into-chord. He switches to a classic root-fifth part during the pre-chorus and then reintroduces the groove during the hook of the song. Masterfully accenting with harmonics and harmonies, this is one of many great bass lines on the Wood Brothers records.
“Lifeblood” (Medeski, Martin & Wood: Shack-Man)
This studio recording beautifully captures MM&W’s experimental side with an introduction of atmospheric noise and a complex, African-influenced groove. Wood kicks in with a funky bass line, and the tune undergoes a series of evolutions: spacious chords on the organ, percussive breakdowns, key changes, and ethereal bowed sounds.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Chris Wood? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!